While purging my apartment in a stoop sale extravaganza, I met one of my neighbors for the first time. One year had passed before our paths finally crossed and, in a matter of minutes, she schooled me on the history of our block and how community boards work. What did my other thousand neighbors know? And how could I reach out to all of them?
Residents are brimming with local knowledge, from the trivial to the empowering: the best slice of pizza, the nearest place to donate clothes, the latest news on the power outage, the lowdown on yesterday’s community board meeting. All of these fragments of local information are dispersed amongst a population within a defined area, and lots of people would benefit from the knowledge and resources of others.
However, we’re currently limited in our ability to communicate with our collective neighborhood and as a result, this wealth of knowledge remains largely untapped. Without sharing, residents live in an area that functions as little more than a giant hotel of passing strangers. Forums for collective communication can transform neighborhoods into extensive information networks. “The denser such networks in a community,” says Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, “the more likely that its citizens will be able to cooperate for mutual benefit.” Empowerment from within!
It’s hard not to spot a flyer while walking around New York City. People post their messages in the interstitial spaces of the City, and lampposts have become unofficial billboards for local communication.
But citizens’ flyers are illegal while businesses can shout about their latest products on an increasing number of public surfaces. Makes you think whether public space can be better designed so that it’s not necessarily allocated to the highest bidder but instead reflects and facilitates the needs of communities.
So it’s time to get more critical of how public space can be used and improved. For one, how can our public spaces be better places for sharing information? How can we harness the collective knowledge of a neighborhood? Let’s start with a question that’s on every New Yorker’s mind:
I riffed off that for my public art project I’ve Lived: Post-it Notes for Neighbors which invited local residents and other passers-by to share information about their living situation. It was part of Windows Brooklyn, a week-long exhibition in June 2008 where artists were paired with storefronts in Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill.
Post-it notes were arranged on the window of Yesterday’s News, a vintage furniture store.
Each note was stamped with the same fill-in-the-blank sentence: “I’ve Lived in a ___-br apartment in _____ for ___ years now and it cost(s) _____!”
During the week it was up, people could fill out the forms with their own information…
…and balk at the high and low numbers paid by others.
By the end of the week, 151 notes (about half) were filled out and the window was transformed into a useful collection of personal notes created by and relevant to the community. 52 responses came from people living in one-bedroom apartments in Carroll Gardens, where monthly rent ranged from $350 to $2700. The winner of Cheapest Apartment goes to someone living in a studio in Carroll Gardens for 43 years that costs $146! And the Most Expensive Award goes to someone in a four-bedroom in Cobble Hill for 4 years that costs $3,720.
Brooklyn resident Deborah bought 3 homes in Bedford Stuyvesant from 1988-2003 and never paid more than $250,000. They put her two sons through college and will allow her to retire early. “Like they say,” she said, “they’re not making any more of it. Get yourself some real estate!”
Here are some graphs of the results. To see more, go here. Of course the final solution is probably not Post-it notes, but it’s a low-budget start. How can we improve the mediums – physical boards, kiosks, websites, mobile applications – for collectively sharing local information? John Thackara, author of In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, says it well: “Design does not take place in a situation; it is the situation. As planners, designers, and citizens, we need to rethink our spaces, places, and communities in order to better exploit the dynamic potential of networked collaborations.” How can we better design the situations in which this can happen?
Here’s some other fun public art projects that have inspired me over the years:
Rebar’s PARK(ing) that turns urban parking spaces into temporary parks
True’s emotional subway stickers that made NYC commutes a more thoughtful affair
Natalie Jeremijenko’s Feral Robotic Dogs that sniff out chemical contamination
Eve Mosher’s High Water Line that marked NYC’s floodline with a physical chalk mark
Free Soil’s FRUIT wrappers that drop knowledge on the energy it took to deliver your orange
Read a response to Post-It Notes for Neighbors by Rachel Abrams.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.